Considerable portions of the history of philosophy can be interpreted as answers to the question, “How can freedom be possible?”, especially two particular versions of that question. There is also a third version which makes a perfect series with the others and is freshly relevant in the current political and commercial-industrial situation.

Version 1: How can freedom be possible for people in a world of constant disturbance from the pain, misery, and anguish of illness, injury, deprivation, loss, growing old, and the hard indifference of nature and other people; in a world where desperate vulnerability keeps us confined to the most bestial and violent impulses, instincts, reflexes, and passions?

After Alexander (the great) of Macedon (previously tutored by Aristotle) conquered the known world of the eastern Mediterranean between 334 and 323 B.C., there was a penetration of Greek culture throughout Alexander’s area of influence, and a reciprocal opening of Greek culture to influences from the ancient east. Those events and cultural developments are invoked by the term “Hellenistic”. Answers to version 1 of our question were created by Hellenistic thinking sects: Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. Their answers can be generalized as humanist rationalism, a philosophical version of transcendence. Stoic rationality was meant to be a portal to freedom in the teeth of miseries and passions arising from the body’s life in a hard indifferent world. It is not a solution to misery, but it is not useless.

Version 2: How can freedom be possible in a world of lifeless matter, from which we ourselves are formed, matter which can do nothing but fall irrevocably toward utter uniformity (entropy, indifference) in accordance with immutable forces, structures, and laws of nature?

A short history of freedom in philosophy is that it was mainly focused on freedom from misery (notwithstanding a long quest for freedom from astrological demons of the zodiac) but eventually altered to a focus on freedom from scientific determinism. In facing the challenge of determinism, it was necessary to respond to a double attack since humanist rationalism had been called into question both internally and externally. The external challenge was the hypothesis posed by Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) that every detail of existence is logically necessary and pre-determined. Remarkably, Spinoza’s work was very close to a modern restatement of Stoicism but with a removal of emphasis from individual inwardness, so that the external determinism of God-or-Nature (logos) loomed in everything. Even more difficult was David Hume’s (1711-1776) Calvinistic attack on the power and integrity of subjective intelligence itself.

Version 3: How can freedom be possible in a world of scientifically engineered psychological manipulation conducted on a mass scale, where people around you, without being aware of it, might be under the influence of secretive powers? How can freedom be possible when modernity is a cultural milieu of fierce ideological intent to negate freedom through mass persuasion, often using emotional manipulation by pervasive media imagery in stealthy applications of cutting edge behavioural science?

Critical thinking skills and a skeptical turn of mind may not be strong enough defenses against advertising media and incentive/ reward packages, because you may conduct such thinking within a set of assumptions that serves the purpose of diabolical powers which want to use everyone, or at least disempower us from interfering, so that wars may still be arranged and conducted in murderous ordinariness.

The natural environment is almost completely mediated for humans by a social and cultural environment. We are social and cultural sponges who soak up, without being especially conscious of doing it, the forms of life, language games, feuds, fads, fashions, and traditions acted out around us. People are not normally conscious of the degree to which our behaviour and thinking are determined by social and cultural influences. We can feel like individuals even when engaging in imitative culturally normative behaviour such as dressing/acting like a man or like a woman. The originality of adults is buried under decades of social conditioning. Although nature has some absolute givens and limitations for any organism, there is a great deal of the human environment which is merely customary and variable through political, commercial, and other human forces.

Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.